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Harriet E. Wilson (March 15, 1825 – June 28, 1900) is considered the first female African-American novelist, as well as the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent. Her novel Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts, and was not widely known. The novel was discovered in 1982 by the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who documented it as the first African-American novel published in the United States. The novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, published for the first time in 2002, may have been written before Wilson’s book.
Born a free person of color in New Hampshire, Wilson was orphaned when young and bound until the age of 18 as an indentured servant. She struggled to make a living after that, marrying twice; her only son George died at age seven in the poor house, where she had placed him while trying to survive as a widow. She wrote one novel. Wilson later was associated with the Spiritualist church, was paid on the public lecture circuit for her lectures about her life, and worked as a housekeeper in a boarding house.
Writing a novel
In 1863, Harriet Wilson appeared on the “Report of the Overseers of the Poor” for the town of Milford, New Hampshire. After 1863, she disappeared from records until 1867, when she was listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper, Banner of Light, as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She subsequently moved across the Charles River to the city of Boston, where she became known in Spiritualist circles as “the colored medium.”
From 1867 to 1897, “Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson” was listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer. She was active in the local Spiritualist community, and she would give “lectures”, either while entranced, or speaking normally, wherever she was wanted. She spoke at camp meetings, in theaters, and in private homes throughout New England; she shared the podium with speakers such as Victoria Woodhull and Andrew Jackson Davis. In 1870 Wilson traveled as far as Chicago as a delegate to the American Association of Spiritualists convention. Wilson delivered lectures on labor reform, and children’s education. Although the texts of her talks have not survived, newspaper reports imply that she often spoke about her life experiences, providing sometimes trenchant and often humorous commentary.
Closer to home, Wilson was active in the organization and maintenance of Children’s Progressive Lyceums, the Spiritualist church equivalent to Sunday Schools; she organized Christmas celebrations; she participated in skits and playlets; and at meetings she sometime sang as part of a quartet. She was also known for her floral centerpieces, and the candies she would make for the children were long remembered. Wilson worked as a Spiritualist nurse and healer (“clairvoyant physician”).
In addition, for nearly 20 years from 1879 to 1897, she was the housekeeper of a boardinghouse in a two-story dwelling at 15 Village Street (near the present corner of Dover [now East Berkeley Street] and Tremont Streets in the South End.) She rented out rooms, collected rents and provided basic maintenance.
In Wilson’s active and fruitful life after Our Nig, there is no evidence that she wrote anything else for publication.
On June 28, 1900, Hattie E. Wilson died in the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was buried in the Cobb family plot in that town’s Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Her plot number is listed as 1337, “old section.”